The contrast between the two discourses could not be starker. On a day when United States President Barack Obama was in the news for interviewing Marilynne Robinson, a writer he admires, thoughtfully discussing faith and democracy, we in India were processing Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s outrageous remark that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef”. Mr Khattar’s office initially denied that he had made such a statement till a recording of the interview surfaced, making his views amply clear.
It may, of course, be unfair to compare one leader at his reflective best with another indulging in brazen majoritarian politics, but Mr Obama’s point in the interview about the social effects of one’s faith is one the BJP must resolutely note, embrace and reaffirm constantly. The president asks Ms Robinson, “How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Far from grappling with the problem of Othering in public life, the chief minister’s answer to a question on the Dadri lynching sees him reduce the event to a “misunderstanding” followed by a menacing spelling out of the terms on which Muslims can live in India.
In a welcome move, Union minister Venkaiah Naidu distanced the BJP from Mr Khattar’s remarks, saying his views are not that of the party, clarifying that “eating is a personal choice of the people”. Since Mr Khattar’s remarks on minorities have a measure of popular appeal, it is worth rehearsing why they are unacceptable.
First, the framing of the language which says Muslims “can continue to live in the country” appears to question the right of minorities to be here in the first place. Governments and majorities do not get to make existential calls on who belongs where, not least owing to religious identity. Second, as Mr Naidu points out, eating choices are a matter of personal freedom — indeed eating beef is legal in Kerala, West Bengal and six states in the Northeast. The NDA must weigh the import of such rhetoric for India internally and externally.
A US Congressional report on religious freedom says, among some sharp observations, that the Muslim community faces ‘significant hate campaigns by Hindu nationalist groups and local and state politicians’. Telling the ministry of external affairs to issue a stern response is the easy part. Welding a nation together is arduous, sensitive work.